Giving hopes and dreams to others: Women Leadership Spotlight on Folake Olayinka

Folake Olayinka is a medical doctor and public health specialist . She is a Nigerian who has worked and lived in different parts of the world, including Nigeria, the United States, Cote d I’voire and Ghana. She has also worked across various aspects of public health such as HIV/AIDS, Malaria, Maternal and Child Health , Polio eradication and Routine immunization. She spoke to Women in Global Health about her journey to her current position as a global health professional with a lens for gender equality.

- Please give us a background on your career and your path to where you are now.

It has been quite a journey and the journey continues- every day I am inspired by new things I am learning and new challenges I am experiencing.

I always wanted to be a medical doctor. As I was growing up I was told by an educationist that my strength wasn’t in the sciences , it was in social sciences- which was true. They advised me and my parents that medicine as a profession was not the best for me and I should look at a different profession. That only fuelled my dream even more and put a fire in me. I told myself- I have a dream and a goal- and I will make it happen.

I graduated from medical school 22 years ago. My clinical practice initially covered government hospitals and it was difficult because the equipment did not work well and labs not functional.

I then moved to the private hospitals. I worked in a high-end boutique hospital in Lagos that catered to the well-to-do. Then I went to work in a busy community hospital that was very large and located next to a slum so we also provided services for very poor people. It was a transformational time in my life. My patients were coming too sick, too late and coming back with the same preventable illnesses. Even sometimes when I would prescribe medicine for them to buy, they would buy cheaper alternatives or half the dose because they could not afford the prescription. I was greatly moved by this experience and this inspired me to want to make a greater impact. Sure there were a few things (e.g obstetrics) where we could give emergency care but the majority of patients we saw came in with preventable diseases.

That launched my public health career. I came back to the US and did a Masters in Public Health (MPH and majored in Maternal and Child health) and graduating Summa cum laude. It was at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic so I started my public health there. I moved back to Nigeria because that is where my passion for public health had been sparked. I worked for an International NGO in Nigeria working on child survival where I led their work on polio eradication in Nigeria- right on the front line across northern Nigeria and at the national level.

Part of my assignment included redesigning the polio interventions for the INGO. I realised very quickly that a lot of the issues with non compliance to polio eradication were also related to lack of basic health care in communities.Every few weeks there were house to house campaigns for polio eradication however ,that same government did not provide basic services, including primary healthcare for diseases such as malaria and basic routine immunization was at very low levels. Yet, on “Polio Days” everyone flooded the villages for polio eradication. I realized it was important to have a focus on strengthening routine immunization and primary health care in these places with almost no other health service rather than just polio eradication. Since then, I have moved on to look at public health through a broader health systems lens. I then went back to HIV work and started an NGO which provides access and information, and provided home-based care to people with HIV/AIDS. My NGO created the first home-based care system in Ikeja, Lagos. We later designed a system that encouraged government facilities to provide a range of services for people living with HIV/AIDS. Working with other partners, we set up a hub for legal counsel, home-based care, skills acquisition, etc. We made services available for people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHIV) in a way that was not stigmatising.

I later went on to be a senior technical advisor on various donor funded programs in Nigeria. I also became the Deputy Chief of Party in Nigeria on a USAID funded Immunization program. My career has also taken me to work within USAID in Nigeria where I worked on their Maternal Child health portfolio.

My last five years have been really catalytic and in 2012, I took up the post to lead the the largest Malaria program funded by DFID in Africa working in 10 states in Nigeria and reaching up to 50 million people. At the ending of SuNMaP program I moved to Washington DC to take on a global position with JSI.

- Were there any parts of the different sub-sectors you worked in where you faced gender discrimination?

Let me give some examples:

There wasn’t too much of that towards me in the beginning at a more technical level. It was later on as I grew in my career into management that I encountered gender discrimination. There was a position for a Chief of party for a project that would be working in Northern Nigeria for an immunization platform. The job was offered to me and later withdrawn. I learnt that the reason was I was a woman and not from that part of the country. This was a disappointment as my extensive and successful years of working there made me the top pick for the post.The disappointment was not in myself but in those that fostered and fuelled such discrimination. The implementing agency made a counter offer as a technical lead. Organizations shouldn’t encourage this sort of divisiveness and gender preference when deciding on leadership but rather get the best person for the job.

As I mentioned, I later moved on to become the Program Director for SuNMaP. It was an £89 million project and probably the largest portfolio program headed by a woman in Nigeria at that time. When I started there we moved from a C-B rating to an A rating for the entire time I was there. People were happy to see a woman doing a good job. However, they were not used to a woman in a position of authority. People would unconsciously respond to me with “yes sir’, I guess they were mostly used to equating leadership to males and not used to seeing such professionalism from a woman. I was generally amused by this and told them to call me anything they wanted.

- Did you have other women in your team? Do you think being in a leadership position has left any impact?

I always try to hire women and encourage them. Women have always been on my team and I try to provide mentoring and support without lowering professional expectations. In the last half of 2015, I relocated back to the US to take up a position with John Snow Inc (JSI), at the centre for immunization. JSI is a diverse and multicultural community.

Within six months, I took on the team lead role for the immunization component of USAID’S flagship Maternal and Child survival project that is in 25 countries and worth $500 million. My predecessor was a man with 30 years’ experience and quite renown. When I was taking over the role I was concerned- he had been the face of this project for a long time and I was concerned about the change management process.

I was an African and I was a woman, leading a global team of highly experienced people and therefore I was concerned. He encouraged me, telling me I was ready for such a role and that I could do it. In my mind I felt people needed to get used to seeing an African woman in decision making roles. I learnt that I have to conduct business so that people become comfortable that I am here to bring value to the discussion and yes diversity too. JSI made this process seamless for me.

- Are there any tools or anything you have done specifically that helped people accept you as a leader?

Where I have worked, I have been able to establish myself as a woman who is professional, results oriented and precise, as all leaders should be no matter their gender. I also realize that management also looks at the human side of people and I really care about my team and their well being.

In every new environment, I have to learn all over again, what works. Simple enough is showing up on time. Second thing is to research your subject. Do not be afraid to ask questions. Remain open and people get used to listening to you, even with a different accent. I recently did a fellowship in Aspen New Voices that helped me to communicate better in multiple settings including media.

Something else I have found powerful is to write- as yourself outside your work. You develop a much wider knowledge platform where you can speak out and share thoughts.

Be interested, be engaged, and don’t be afraid to ask questions!

- Did mentorship from a male or female help you out in your career?

I have a few mentors, one of the most outstanding is Robert Steinglass- my predecessor in my current position and supervisor of many years. First, he told me I could do it with 100% confidence. He also relates to me and everyone else on his team as a professional. I have tried to carry through with that and continue to have confidence, relate to people as professionals, but also remember that they have a personal side- recognizing that everyone is a whole person and not just work. Yes, you are a professional but you cannot take out family life.

- Did you ever have a time when you felt you had to break the glass ceiling? Do you notice the glass ceiling for yourself or other female colleagues?

What I notice is when you are moving to top management that is where the glass ceiling is. The mid-level space has been opened very well for women. I have certainly broken that ceiling but it is because of the cracks made by other women before me and I give tribute to them all over the world. Recall, ten years ago- as I had explained earlier- I was offered the chief role in a program but had it withdrawn because I was a woman.

- Do you notice anything in JSI to promote gender diversity?

It fits well within their organization. They are equal opportunity employers, they walk the talk and are very supportive. They promote diversity, growth and gender equality. I love JSI.

-- Parting words

For me, it is one thing to have an opportunity to be in in leadership position but it is also not going to be handed to you. You need to work hard, or even harder, and you need to be courageous. Take the position- but remember that it comes with a responsibility to take on the profile so that other women are encouraged to take such positions. Never ever give up on your dreams and be resilient because if you never try you cannot make it. My father also used to tell me if you try and don’t get it the first time -try and try again. I rarely give up on things.

Recently, a woman told me “Folake, if you can do it, I can do it.” To give those hopes and dreams to other women is important.

I was recently in a session where we share experiences and where women can ask various questions around careers. One of the questions I got is “when did I have time to start a family.” I prioritize such opportunities to share as it could inspire someone else.

These sharing sessions have a gendered perspective because the questions to women and the women’s perspective when answering are different. They asked me how I managed to have a family and climb the career ladder- and I can tell you- it took sweat, blood, and tears and a supportive partner. I have three kids and people want to hear those stories and reflect on their own growth.

When my mentee gave me feedback that she can do it, I thought “YES! Women are doing it!” and YES! you can have it all.

See Folake speak The Aspen Institute's 'Undaunted: Looking for the Finish Lines of Global Health' event:

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